Meth Mom, Meet the Honorable Judge Social Worker

Courts aren't the place to problem-solve

Dakota County is soon to open a special court for parents with meth addictions. Unlike most child protection courts, this one would fast-track cases where the grownups need treatment in an effort to shorten the amount of time children spend in foster care. The Pioneer Press reports that a state grant will assist this new "helping court" in placing parents in treatment and ensuring that a judge rides herd on the bureaucracy that sometimes makes this difficult.

It's a laudable effort, but far from the real reform that would truly make the system "child-focused," as all of the court system's mission statements vow.

That system is expected to provide more rewards and supervision for parents than traditional child-protection cases, where hearings are held every 90 days. It also allows the courts to impose intermediate sanctions, such as electronic home monitoring, when an offender begins to slip up.

"Obviously, there's an incentive to get their kids back, but it's going to be a pretty rigorous program," said Judge Ed Lynch, who will preside over the cases. "It will be interesting to see how many (parents) are willing to make that commitment."

Unfortunately, the story goes on to suggest at some length that the meth addict's commitment to sobriety is the largest obstacle to family reunification. A City Pages investigation in December revealed that in fact Minnesota children are losing their parents in unprecedented numbers.

In 2001, Minnesota enacted a law designed to reduce the length of time that kids who land in the system have to spend in legal limbo, buffeted by the periodic and wrenching upheaval of moving from one home to another without any assurance as to when, or if, they might return home. The new rules essentially require courts to hurry up and determine—within 6 months or 12, depending mainly on the child's age—whether children should be taken from a home permanently.

The phase-in of this new, more aggressive child protection timeline has coincided with the arrival of methamphetamine in rural and suburban Minnesota, which in turn has sparked an unprecedented increase in the number of child protection cases. Court officials say fully half the cases they see in Anoka now involve meth—and add that there are no effective treatment programs in Minnesota where caseworkers can send users. Even if everyone who needed treatment got it, Askew and the other judges assigned to Anoka's child protection cases know from hard experience that six months isn't enough time to assess whether an addicted parent is getting any sort of toehold on sobriety.

To date there has been no official evaluation of the effect of the new law, but statistics provided by state court analysts show that the number of cases where parental rights are terminated is rising. In Anoka, the number of cases has tripled since the new timeline was adopted; the number of children affected has risen even higher. In the vast majority of Anoka County cases involving meth, children now lose their parents for good.

Dakota County's initiative is a good baby step, but those problem-solving judges are going to find that there is a greater chance they'll find gold under the Mall of America than an appropriate treatment placement for each parent appearing before them. Minnesota lacks meth-specific programs, money to send users to the overextended not-quite-right programs that do exist, and the political will to do anything about it. The child protection system can't move much faster if addicts can't get treatment beds and if their health insurance providers aren't willing to pay for it.

What if we took this state money funding this well-intentioned effort and instead put it toward creating treatment centers where entire families could live, together, for the duration of Mom and Dad's treatment? That would be a child-focused system.

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